“I’m going to Mister Rogers’ house!” my 4-year-old daughter Jessica began singing, after learning she would accompany me when I interviewed the host of her favorite television show. That was back in 1984, but the details started coming back to me during the recent hubbub over Tom Hanks playing Fred Rogers in his new movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.”
I recalled the way Jessica decided on her own to wear an old-fashioned dress with puffed sleeves and a floor-length skirt on the big day. And, for more than a week beforehand, she danced around our home on tiptoe in high anticipation.
As a magazine journalist who often wrote about the family, I had interviewed Rogers several times before, but never with my child. This time, though, Jessica was in the grip of Mister Rogers fever, loving all his songs, his puppet shows, but mostly the way he seemed to speak right to her through the magic of television. So I couldn’t resist asking if I could bring her along with me to the interview. “We get this a lot,” said David Newell, who doubled as Rogers’ PR representative when he wasn’t playing delivery man Mr. McFeely on the show.
Jessica and I were both trembling like leaves on the springy day when we rang Mister Rogers’ bell. But when he opened the door, we got a big surprise. His face was streaked with pancake makeup and he was in Fruit of the Loom mode, that is, wearing a white undershirt over his slacks. Beside me, I could feel Jessica shrink back at such an unfamiliar sight.
“I was on the ‘Today’ show this morning and I’ve still got my makeup on,” Rogers explained to us with a smile. In a moment he was back again, face freshly scrubbed, in a blue cotton shirt with white collar and cuffs. But Jessica was not quite ready for this version of Mister Rogers, either.
By this time we were seated on a couch in Rogers’ comfy living room. And as I watched, he put his head next to Jessica’s and softly began to sing, “You are my friend, you are special.” And soon I heard her hesitant little voice join his: “You are my friend, you are special to me.”
For me, nothing that happened afterward could begin to match that moment. Not even when Rogers gave Jessica all the pennies off his dresser. Not even when Rogers asked Jessica to do some crayon drawings while he and I were talking, and then made a point of slipping her artwork into a cardboard portfolio for safekeeping.
When Michael, my husband and Jessica’s father, came to pick us up at the end of the hour, he brought his camera and took pictures of Jess and Mister Rogers looking over her drawings together. And then, one last surprise. Gesturing toward Michael’s camera, Rogers said, “Let me take a picture of your family.”
Susan Lapinski is a writer in New York City. She summers in Sullivan. Her latest book is a family saga set in Down East Maine.